Nestled among the majestic scenery of the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests, the Nolichucky River Gorge provides some of the most breathtaking scenery in North America. When not looking up to catch a view of the mountains and the wide variety of wildlife, the Nolichucky River challenges visitors with an adrenaline-producing trip through its class III-IV whitewater maze.
Cherokee Adventures has been guiding locals and visitors to the region down the Nolichucky for over 30 years. Since starting operations in Erwin in 1979, Cherokee has provided raft trips on the Upper and Lower Nolichucky River to thousands of people each spring, summer and fall. Recently, the raft company asked the Elizabethton STAR to send a reporter on a guided raft trip through the gorge. While this would not be my first time down the “Noli,” it had been several years since my last excursion into the beauty and wonder of this local gem.
The guided trips down the Nolichucky are offered with two different choices of transportation. Guests have the option of taking the ride on the traditional raft or by funyak, which is a one-person inflatable raft that resembles its distant cousin, the kayak. Regardless of the boat choice, the Upper Nolichucky trip is led by a qualified river guide.
After orientation and a safety talk from Cherokee Adventures Raft Guide Loren Smith, our group of eight climbed on the bus for a 45-minute trip over the mountain to reach the river. For many years, guests to Cherokee Adventures have been entertained on the ride with the tale of “Murderous Mary.” Mary, a large African Elephant, was hanged in the Town of Erwin in 1916 after an incident in Kingsport that left the elephant’s trainer dead. Each raft guide, however, places their own unique spin on the true story that always makes the ride a little shorter.
The put-in for the Nolichucky is located across the state line in the small hamlet of Poplar, N.C. Maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, the starting point for the river is situated approximately four miles from where the Toe and Cane Rivers converge to create the Nolichucky.
Unlike many rivers in the Southeastern United States, the Nolichucky is not dam-controlled. With no dam, water levels are dependent on precipitation levels, primarily in Western North Carolina. In most years, visitors to the gorge will find the optimum water levels, which are measured by cubic feet per second (CFS), during the spring or after a heavy summer rain. The character of the river can be dramatically changed by the water levels. On this trip, the Nolichucky River was running at just over 900 CFS, which is typical for mid-June.
After passing under a railroad track just beyond the put-in spot, the Nolichucky’s only life-line to the outside world is the CSX Railroad Line that parallels the left bank of the river. In the eight-mile stretch between Poplar and Erwin, Tenn., the river is located entirely within the boundaries of the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests.
Once we passed under the railroad trestle, the river wastes no time in greeting her guests in dramatic fashion. The first challenge, Last Chance or Entrance Rapid, is a class III rapid that sets the tone for the first half of the trip.
The Nolichucky’s most famous and most challenging section is found along a stretch of river called Quarter-Mile. As the name implies, it is a class IV rapid that is a quarter-mile in length. If you haven’t taken the trip in the last few years, Quarter-Mile, along with other portions of the Nolichucky, were altered due to flooding in 2004. After Hurricanes Frances and Ivan caused flooding in Western North Carolina, Quarter-Mile rapid was altered when large boulders shifted in the river.
As we entered the challenge of Quarter-Mile, Smith took extra time to prepare us for the section. After the last-minute preparations, our raft mates made it through the gauntlet without losing anyone overboard.
Throughout the first half of the trip, the Nolichucky Gorge has plenty of chances for excitement. With rapids such as Jaws, Rollercoaster, Rooster Tail and Surprise, first-timers and veterans to the Noli will enjoy their experience.
After stopping for lunch at Railroad Wall, or Lost Cove Rapid, the Nolichucky begins to take on more of a playful demeanor with plenty of opportunities for fun.
The last class III rapid that the Nolichucky Gorge offers is called Twin Eddies. A highlight of the day was the opportunity to “surf” the rapid. Smith paddled us upstream back into Twin Eddies and treated us to a wet and wild ride in Twin Eddies. For anyone who enjoys water rides at an amusement park, don’t miss the opportunity to surf Twin Eddies.
The day ends just outside Erwin at Chestoa Park. A short ride back to Cherokee’s base camp on Highway 107 for a hot shower and dry clothes completes the exciting journey. The Nolichucky River Gorge, or the less-strenuous Lower section, is a perfect day trip for families, business outings or a youth group trip. Cherokee offers discounts for groups of 10 or more. Overnight getaway packages are also available with accommodations ranging from wilderness camping to staying at Cherokee’s basecamps with facilities.
For more information on Cherokee Adventures and their services, visit their website at www.cherokeeadventures.com. You can reserve a trip down the Upper or Lower Noli, along with guided raft excursions down the Watauga River in Carter County, by calling (423) 743-7733 or toll-free at 1-800-445-7238.